A number of visitors to this blog drew my attention to Molly Fox’s Birthday after my From Page to Stage posts indicated my interest in theater and drama and the way that plays became productions. The unnamed narrator of this intriguing novel is a playwright, the Molly of the title is an actor (we don’t call them actresses) — and the visitors who pointed me to this book were right.
Molly Fox’s Birthday is a “one-day” book in that all of the action takes place on a single June 21, the birthday of the actor which only her brother is allowed to acknowledge (as we actors get older, the parts get harder to find). The narrator is in temporary residence in Molly Fox’s terrace house in Dublin, trying to get a start on her 20th play. Molly is in New York, having a holiday before heading to London to record an audio book of Adam Bede — while our narrator lives in London, she and Molly fairly often swap residences since both have movable careers.
Their friendship goes back decades. The narrator’s first play — Summer with Lucy — was also Molly’s first glowing success. From the playwright’s point of view, that play wrote itself and she could hardly keep up as the words demanded to be put onto the page. With 19 plays produced since then, she has hardly been a failure (although her last play was a critical disaster) but the writing process has become more and more of a struggle as time goes on. Molly, on the other hand, moves from triumph to triumph — her latest performance in The Duchess of Malfi, an exceedingly difficult part, the most recent in a string. Molly does not act, she lives her character. The playwright has to work a lot harder to create those characters, except when it is Molly:
Molly has been something of a muse to me over the years. The best roles I have written for women have been created with Molly in mind. Our gifts complement each other in a way that is, I believe, rare. Often when I am writing for her I can hear her voice. Sometimes it is so clear it is as if she is speaking aloud, as if she were there in the room with me. It is almost occult. It gives me confidence and courage to know that I have such an instrument at my disposal.
While Madden has said elsewhere that she does not know a lot about the theater, the novel says that she does — and anyone who finds the theater interesting will appreciate that throughout the first part of this book. It is a most interesting exploration.
Unfortunately (for me) that is not what Madden means this book to be about. There is a third character, an art historian named Andrew, who is equally important. A university classmate of Molly’s, he has gone on to fame as a TV presenter who brings art to the masses. (Yes, I could not help but think about Sister Wendy, but he is not like that at all. On the other hand, the business model is similar.) He and the playwright keep in touch; our narrator is also somewhat upset that he and Molly seemed to have developed a friendship which is beyond her control.
All three of these characters have brothers and, as much as I wanted this book to be about theater, by the halfway point I knew the author meant it to be about something else. From here on, theater moves into the background and explorations of family move center stage. While that may have disappointed me, I suspect a lot of other readers will welcome it.
The narrator is the youngest of seven children but her closest sibling is the eldest, who is now, in the Irish tradition, a priest. Father Tom has potential as a character — for him the Church is a vocation, in the sense of being a good job as opposed to a calling for the soul. He loves his visits to London to be with his sister as a chance to explore all that that wonderful city represents. Alas, Madden does not give him much space.
Molly’s sibling is Fergus, an alcoholic, disturbed person whose shortcomings she puts down to their mother’s desertion of the family on her seventh birthday. Fergus has a different opinion.
Andrew’s sibling is Billy, his parents’ favorite, even though he was a failure who was murdered/executed for his part on the Loyalist side in the Irish Troubles. His position in the family has left a mark on Andrew since childhood; it has become even worse since his death. He needs to resolve it.
I loved the first half of this book because I think Madden does a wonderful job of exploring the theatrical experience — and that is something that is important to me. I’ll admit that I trudged through the latter half, but that is not the author’s fault. What was important to her was not that important to me, and my admiration for the way she set up the book extracted a price when she came to her main point.
Molly Fox’s Birthday was short-listed for this year’s Orange Prize and deservedly so. If you like theater and reading about how it comes to pass (as I do), there is much to recommend here, at least in the first half of the book. I’m afraid my enthusiasm for that part of the book did effect the way I viewed the rest. Mea culpa.